Training log, w/e 27/10/2019

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Here is what I did last week (total distance 55 km / 34 miles):

Week of Oct 21st to 27th 2019

I began on Tuesday with a really easy 4-mile run to recover from the race-pace half-marathon run I did on 20th Oct. Then after a rest day, I reeled off 4 days of running in a row.

On Thursday I did a threshold run that began with a 10-minute warmup (easy run pace), followed by 3 repeats of 8 minutes at 7:00 to 7:30 mile pace with 2 minutes of rest (jogging pace) in between. I did this on the CIT track wearing my NB FuelCell Rebels. These are excellent for that 5K to 10K range when running at speed. However, on a wet track, I felt them slip a little, which dented my confidence in pushing off them. In future, I will stick to the NB Beacon V2 on wet days on the track.

On Friday I had another easy run of nearly 4 miles.

Then I made a snap decision based on how I felt and my plans for the following week. Rather than run my long run on the Sunday, I decided I would do it on the Saturday, giving me 8 days to recover for my final long run, the 20-miler.

For the 19-mile long run, I set my virtual pace runner to 5:45 per km (slightly slower than 4-hour marathon pace), but ended up at 5:39/km (9:05/mile), inside 4-hour marathon pace (about 3:58:00). I felt good and got stronger (and faster) from the 13th to 17th miles, with no real dip for the last 2 miles as I got back into the city and had to cross roads, etc.

What was really confidence-boosting was at 13.1 miles when I looked at the watch and saw I was only about a minute off the time I set for the half-marathon run I did 6 days prior and I still felt I had plenty left in the tank (obviously I had almost 6 miles left to run!).

One difference was nutrition. Up to this run I had used no gels, no electrolyte replacement drink, no nothing (I had even run for 2 hours 40 minutes with no water). I knew it was time to get my ass in gear to test my stomach and see if gels and electrolyte drink would help my endurance. I bought a number of High5 gels from wiggle.co.uk – variety packs with loads of flavours and types of gel. I decided to use caffeine gels at the beginning of the run and standard gels thereafter. I was worried my stomach wouldn’t like the caffeine, but I had no problems taking a caffeine gel every 20 minutes (4 of them in total), then another 3 non-caffeine gels after that. I also had a caffeine gel a few minutes before I started running, so that was 5 caffeine gels back to back, with no issues like stomach cramping or diarrhea. I did discover that I can tolerate the High5 Energy Gel Aqua (previously known as IsoGels) more than the thicker standard High5 Energy Gel. There is a 26g difference in weight per gel, and they are obviously bulkier. However, there is no doubt that I can tolerate the aqua gels more than the non-aqua gels, so it’s a trade-off I will gladly pay.

I used 2 High5 zero cal electrolyte tablets in 800ml of water and poured 600ml into the 3 bottles I carried with me (on my water belt). I was also carrying an Asics marathon bumbag/pouch thingy (it actually goes to the front) with all my gels in it – I prefer this to the gel belts with loops than can be very uncomfortable with the larger energy gel aquas.

For the race itself, I will be carrying 10 gels (660g weight to begin with) with me in my pouch to be consumed every 20 minutes. 7 will be caffeine aqua gels (these will probably be all citrus flavour), which I will use up first, then 3 standard aqua gels (probably orange flavour) in the front pocket for the final hour or thereabouts. I’ll also take a few electrolyte/magnesium tablet halves to drop into the 250ml bottles handed out on course. After the 19-mile run when I consumed 7 gels at 20-minute intervals (and hopefully to be confirmed by my upcoming 20-mile run), I am confident this will give me the best nutritional strategy. I will return to my race-day strategy in a later post.

Finally last week, I did a really slow 2.3-mile recovery run the day after the long run.

Plan for next week is to begin introducing more hilly runs. Clon is a very hilly marathon and I have run very little on hills so far. Then on Sunday will be that crucial 20-miler. Hopefully… I seem to have a slight head cold, but as long as it stays above the neck, I should still be good to go on Sunday.

Bringing things up to date

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Let’s bring everything up to date so that I can just blog about a week’s training at a time from next week.

Firstly, it’s been over 7 years since my last serious race. There were a couple of fun runs and a marathon relay leg in the meantime, but these were as an overweight, untrained person. On 23 Sept 2012, I ran the Charleville half-marathon in 1:42:43, over 3 minutes off my half-marathon best. The story thereafter was one of failed attempts to get back into training and losing weight… until now.

To bring things right up to date, last March I began a series of free personal training sessions over 7 weeks. I didn’t lose weight, but I reckon my body composition changed and upped my metabolism. I lost 7 lbs over the next few weeks without any training, down to about 227 lbs.

Then, July 1st the switch flipped. I was going to do that intense 8-week blood sugar diet (with a bit more than 800 calories to allow for my training). I did with no problem and I lost 29 lbs. Since then, on a more modestly restricted diet, I lost a further 16 lbs. Add in the first 7 lbs and that’s about 52 lbs total since some time in May (I’m now just a shade over 180 lbs).

My training also started on July 1st. In a 1-mile treadmill test back in March, I struggled to do it in 10:30, gassed by going out too fast. Now I can run a mile in probably 6:30 and last weekend completed a 19-mile run at just over 9 minutes/mile. I plan to do 20 miles at the weekend at about 8:45 a mile.

Since July 1st, my plan was always to run a marathon, whenever. A few weeks later and I had made my mind up to run the Clonakilty marathon on Nov 30th. This is way ahead of my original plan to return to marathon running with the Cork City marathon on May 31st 2020. I just felt with my previous marathon experience (and previous weight loss experience) that I would be up for the challenge.

So what is my goal for the Clonakilty marathon? My Garmin 245 watch is telling me I’m in sub-4 hour shape. It analyses a lot of data over several weeks to make that call, and based on the 19-mile run, I think I would be certain to finish a fairly flat marathon (like Cork, which is only moderately hilly) in under 4 hours. However, the Clonakilty marathon is very hilly with nearly 500m of elevation gain. I could do it in under 4 hours, but it would be tough. I’m going to leave my final pacing decisions until closer to the race.

My mileage this training cycle isn’t at the level of what I did 7 years ago. That’s deliberate: I view this next marathon just as a return to what I belong doing. The time isn’t hugely important. It is a stepping stone to getting in even better shape for future marathons to set a new PB time.

Back in the swing of things

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As much for myself as anyone else, I am going to get back to blogging about my training, general health and fitness, nutrition, etc.

Early this year I weighed over 108 kgs (about 17 stone). I was within touching distance of my all-time high weight of 17 stone 10 lbs. I now weigh 83.4 kgs. My BMI has gone from just inside the obesity category II range (35.1), down to 26.9, near the mid-point of the overweight category.

In the near future I will post about how I lost that weight and how it differed from the first time about a decade ago that I went from 17st 10lb down to about 12 stone. And why this time I should be able to maintain a good, healthy weight.

I will also log, probably weekly, an update on my training. I last ran a marathon (my fifth) in July 2012. My training is coming along nicely to run the Clonakilty marathon on November 30th 2019. To put that in perspective, I began training properly on July 1st when I weighed just over 16 stone. I have lost 3.5 stone in the 3.5 months I have been training and I should weigh around 12 st 7lb stone on race day (I weigh 13st 2lb now). That’s about the weight I ran my previous 5 marathons. However, I plan to go lower as I was always a bit overweight doing my marathons and leaving time out on the course.

My latest training runs are synced from Garmin Connect to Strava and a widget to the left shows my latest training.

That’s it for now. More detail on my training and weight loss to come.

Visualization of thesis word count

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I am very close to finishing and submitting my thesis. The write-up phase has been incredible – just a blur, really, as I’ve worked Saturdays and Sundays and have had almost zero down-time.

I only seriously got into the write-up in early July, throwing away a lot of what I had written over the past year or two and starting with about 5,000 words. Then at the start of August all the late nights on the thesis caught up with me and I had horrible gum infections (a wisdom tooth that is half embedded) and a chest infection, both requiring courses of antibiotics – immune system had taken a hammering, I assume.

Then the new semester started and I was just in survival mode. But, then I seemed to get my strength back and got back into the write-up and finishing off my final study.

Just to procrastinate a bit, I went to GitHub where I have been version-controlling my LaTeX thesis document and checked out the different versions for each day, doing a word count in TeXStudio. Then I used Excel to enter the data and create the following time-series chart:

The type of PhD I’ve almost completed meant I needed a minimum of 50,000 words, because of the significant amount of software development – a VR-based game, an API and a web-based analytics dashboard. However, I am just under 60,000 words and still have a few thousand more to go. Citations are approach 230 with another couple of dozen at least to go.

It’s strangely emotional looking at the visualization. In mid-August, when I was suffering badly with a chest infection, I almost felt like giving up, or more likely just taking my time and finishing well into next year. Then the recovery surprised me.

Second Novel – A Frank Discussion

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Finishing your first novel is a complicated experience – at least, it was for me. First there is a sense of accomplishment that, however flawed, you completed a substantial work – in my case, a 90,000-word novel. But immediately thoughts should be moving to the next novel (or short stories if you want a change-up), we are told. I have found myself fixated still on the first, though. I’m not happy with it. As much as I admire some of the sections of the book, I am not happy enough with the total work. It mirrors how I felt when I ran my first marathon – I got my tactics wrong and ended up walking a lot during the last 10 miles, finishing outside 4 hours. You are supposed to feel a sense of accomplishment at completing a full marathon, yet I was left with an anticlimax – yes, I had finished a marathon, but I hadn’t entirely run it and finished under 4 hours. The next marathon I ran 3hr 57min … cue celebration? Nope. Again, I got my tactics wrong and finished badly. 4 weeks later I ran 3:55 in a more consistent run. Only after 3 marathons did I feel satisfied.

So I am engaged in a retrospective. I have reflected on novel number 1, which I elected to self-publish despite some promising initial feedback from 3 agents (though none would ultimately represent it). I have tormented myself about whether to leave it well alone and move on to the next, whether to do some rewriting of it with a re-release, or a third way.

As it happens, I have opted for the third way. I am writing a brand new novel, but one that will be what the first one could have been. I am a different, hopefully much-improved writer than the one who began The Murk Beneath in late 2009. I don’t want my first, flawed novel to swallow ideas that I can revisit and better express in the second. Will there be some overlap between the second and first novels? Yes, clearly. But they will still be very different experiences. Would someone who read the first novel feel a bit cheated if they read the second, given some similarities? I hope not and I don’t think so. But we are not talking about many readers, so it should not be something to worry me if I plan on a much more successful second novel.

I did agonize about just getting on with novel #2 and not looking back. What I like to do is to write a couple of chapters and see if they are “grabbing” me. If they don’t, I move on and try again until something grabs on to me. Only when I tried my third way did I get further and feel the magic again. There is a theory of flow by Csikszentmihalyi, which is a bit like a state of Zen. In the “flow channel”, you are finding things relatively easy, though there will be peaks and troughs (e.g. you flow easily through a chapter, but then have to figure out a nice way to end it that will hook the reader into the next) – but when in the flow channel, you keep safely between anxiety (e.g. writer’s block) and boredom (e.g. not really into the subject matter or theme of your novel). I’m only 3 to 4 chapters in, but I feel it. I think it will be a huge improvement on the first and I’m optimistic that this time I will get a good agent. No guarantee of course, but at least I’m in the channel now.

My reflections on the launch of The Murk Beneath, part 1

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It was a long time coming. I put virtual pen to virtual paper back in late 2009 during the masters in creative writing I did in University of Edinburgh. By the end of that course, I have about 20,000 words of Mickey Bosco novel #1, original title The Long Run Back. Over the next year or so the word count was at 40,000 and then stalled. It gathered dust, so to speak. And then in the summer of 2014, when I should have been concentrating on my PhD (thank God I didn’t because I subsequently changed my topic), I started to write. And write. I wrote 50,000 words in 24 days and finished the first draft of the novel. I sat on it for a bit and did occasional minor rewriting and editing. And then in the summer of 2015 I decided to try my luck with literary agents. I probably submitted to about 16 of them, all respected, all representing legit authors, some of them prize winners. I had initial success with 3 agents. I knew immediately that I was way ahead of the curve. Most writers don’t get near to that. And we’ve all heard the stories about famous authors being rejected initially. The initial success was having the full manuscript requested – this is a big deal; it means the first 3 chapters or 50 pages was of a good quality and the agent sees potential in selling you on to a publisher. I thought I had it made at that point. And then 1 very polite refusal (lots to admire, etc.) and 2 tumbleweeds (you need to get used to black holes and tumbleweeds in this business, i.e. non-responses to queries – rude but they would claim they don’t have time – don’t have time to email with a single sentence? – “lot’s to admire, but we don’t think we are best placed to represent your book”, or similar).

I gave up for a bit then. The novel was shelved. I got my head down and concentrated on the PhD. Then I decided to submit to a small publisher in Ireland. I had seen them publish a big prize winner in crime fiction. What followed was a slightly bizarre email exchange where they said my query email only mentioned male authors, that the publishing industry was mostly female and that for future queries I should try not to alienate them. I only included some of the latest writers I had been reading – as it happens they were all male. Most of the authors I have read of late are men. I don’t see how that makes me sexist; I just gravitate to the writing I like and the fact that most have been male of late is more coincidence of timing than design (I have read in the past works by Val McDermid, Patricia Cornwell, Ruth Rendell, even Janet Evanovich, for example). Anyway, eventually I got a polite rejection (the lots to admire, but can’t be confident in representing it, type of email).

That was it for me. I decided there and then that I must self-publish, but do it professionally. The industry has been really shaken up in the last few years and it is well documented that most writers can make more as a self-published author and get more freedom and flexibility about how and when to publish, for how much, etc. But it need to be done professionally. I had the confidence that the quality of writing was fine (comments from agents like “very promising”, ” really enjoyed it”, “you can write”, “dialogue is spot on”), which drove me on and gave me confidence to put myself out there. I believed that the book would be enjoyed by the majority of those that read it, acknowledging that my novel was a bit too niche perhaps for a London literary agent to be confident in representing (i.e. that they could get a big advance from a publisher to get their 15% cut). Or maybe I am making excuses …

So that’s some of the story about the initial years of my journey to publication. In future posts I will discuss the self-publishing process, about how to do a professional job in putting the paperback and eBook together, and about marketing the book. With the book now finally published, the feeling of being a true writer is there. Of course you are a writer when you have finished a major work, be it novel, play or collection of poetry or short stories. But there is always an awkwardness when talking to others about something they can’t get their hands on – it’s all too abstract. Now I can point to the book on Amazon and say – “try calling me something other than a writer now!”.

One other thing that publishing the book has done is to release the shackles. While humming and hawing about whether to self-publish, whether to hold out for that publishing contract, I neglected my writing. Now that I have made the decision to just published and be damned, I feel something in my bones, something urging me to write. Never mind the money, the fame-seeking, etc., just write. And publish. And I will.

PhD Log 25/11/2016

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Concentration on the game continues for the next few days before I return to the thesis. I had a meeting with a subject matter expert (education and physical education), which was really useful – got some good directions to go in terms of theory, etc. and she also gave me the confidence that I am on the right track.

In terms of game development, I continue to concentrate on what is probably the key game mechanic: the gathering of clues and making deductions, which is really a game dynamic because it dictates most of the gameplay and further builds the aesthetics of challenge and discovery. I have now completed the basic mechanics of the deductions user interface – gathered clues and red herrings relevant to each question are displayed and these can be dragged into deduction slots; when a clue is dragged into a deduction slot it disappears from its clue slot; if when all the deduction slots for a question are filled the deduction has not been solved, the player can drag the clue out of the deduction slot, release the mouse button, and the clue will be placed back in a clue slot. The image below shows the player in the middle of solving a question:

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The tutorials on drag and drop from Unreal / Epic Games were very useful as a starting point, but there needed to be customization and refactoring, and a lot of additional development. The refactoring has really cut down the amount of code and I can see there are ways to really slim it down further. One major change from the tutorials was to create an interface to apply to all objects containing clue information. All the objects are gathered as they are and later, when they need to be interrogated, the interface is used to ask for the clue data (currently just an image and the clue description). This means that any object in the game can become a clue – I cast the generic object to a clue as required; I store in the underlying data structures as the generic object.

The next step is to give feedback on when a deduction has been made, i.e. the correct clues have been dropped into all of the deduction slots. I also want to have a cascading mechanic whereby only the questions that need to be answered now are enabled and / or visible; some questions will be locked until a prerequisite question has been answered. In addition, it may not have been possible to discover clues for a question yet (it may be in a future room) and so questions should be locked until all the clues are available.

PhD Log 22/11/2016

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Busy, busy, busy. I’ve been working every spare hour the past few days on getting the important deduction interface working. It’s getting quite close now to a first fully-working prototype (of that deduction interface, not the full game!). At that point, I can start thinking more about game content, the lesson plans, in effect.

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As you can see from the image above, a number of deductions are to be made in the level. Right now, I envisage each deduction requiring 2 to 4 clues to solve it. In the top row of clues will be the clues that solve the question, plus a small number of red herrings, e.g. if 3 clues are required, I might include 2 red herrings. The idea here is to acknowledge who will be playing (not hardcore game players, for the most part) and how to keep them in the zone between frustration and boredom (in the flow channel – based on Csíkszentmihályi‘s theory of flow). If there were too many permutations, e.g. 3 deduction slots to be filled from 10 clues, then it might take too long to solve the deduction if the player is reduced to guessing. On the other hand, if there were 3 deductions slots, but only 4 clues to choose from, then a very quick trial and error process would solve the deduction. Right now, I would tend towards about 50% extra “red herring” clues, but initial play testing will help determine the best ratio (even before a pilot study designed to test transfer of learning, etc.). Red herrings could be clues that are relevant to other deductions, or clues that are not applied to any deductions.

Right now, the player can click on a question to solve (i.e. to make a deduction). This will make visible 2 to 4 deduction slots in the lower row. The player can drag clues from the upper row (clue slots) into the deduction slots. The player can click through the questions and the clues that were dragged into the deduction slots will still be there when the player clicks on a question again. Currently the clue slots don’t change when you click on a question – however, I have an underlying data structure that links clues and red herrings to deductions to be made and a bit of scripting will make that work too. The next step after that will be to give feedback to the player when a correct clue is in a deduction slot (e.g. green border around the image) and then to let the player know when a clue has been solved, and perhaps what has been unlocked as a result. A final step will be to apply some stylish graphics.

PhD Log 17/11/2016

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The pace is definitely picking up now. I have a bit more free time away from teaching and other duties as the semester draws to a close (though I must correct 30 game essays and a number of game group projects, nearly 40 Spring framework assignments and a number of group Spring web / database projects by early January!).

Today I made some progress on the clues / deductions drag and drop user interface. You can now walk around and right-click on objects and those that are clues will add an image to a free clue slot in the UI. Right now I have a maximum of 10 clue slots – maybe I ensure that some deductions are made and clues cleared before moving on to the next section and 10 will be enough. These clues can now be dragged around within the clue slots, dropped into a free slot or swapped with an existing clue image. This might be useful if the player wants to group what he/she thinks might be related clues. The solution involves scripting the drag and drop behaviour of the clue slots in the UI, while maintaining a parallel array of clues; all very old fashioned programming / scripting in some parts. Here is what I have so far:

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It’s a bit rough yet, but with some prettifying it will look just fine. In the background, I have scripted the beginnings of the deduction data structure and the management of it. I have decided that in each level, I will create an array of object references (i.e. reference the actual 3D object that was dropped into the level, which will have embedded clue metadata – clue text, clue image, etc.). This is a 2D structure with an array of deductions, each of which has an array of associated clue object references.

To allow for flexibility as to what a clue object is, I created a ClueInterface, which each type of interactive clue object will implement (it simply has a get method that returns clue text and clue image). This means that my base interactive object, and by extension any more specific objects that inherit from it (e.g. newspaper articles, notes, etc.), as well as any other objects like non-player characters or anything else, can be a clue – it just implements the interface and the get method, returning clue text and clue image property values. This avoids the bad cast-fail-cast pattern because you never need to cast to a specific type of object, you just cast to the generic one-size-fits-all ClueInterface type.

Next step is the drag and drop to the deduction slots below, plus being able to select which deduction you are working on.